amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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A sting in the tail

En francais

Vendanges is finished at Jeff Coutelou’s for 2020. That is the good news, with some lovely grapes and good quantities all seemed well. Then on Saturday Jeff messaged me to say that there had been a final twist, a proverbial sting in the tail. The problem was an insect though, admittedly, not one with an actual sting. I mentioned in the last post that there had been a little ver de la grappe (grape worm moth) problem. Well, that problem suddenly worsened in the last few days of harvesting.

Some Grenache, Cinsault but especially Mourvedre were affected. The latter is a later ripening grape and no less than 60% of the grapes had to be rejected and were lost. That is a huge loss. The culprit was not the usual grape moth Eudémis which lays its eggs on the grapes, the larvae and caterpillars then attacking the grapes and spoiling them. Jeff is used to those and recognises the problem coming.

This was a new moth to the area, Pyrale du Daphné (Cryptoblabes gnidiella) or honeydew moth. This menace has been damaging grape crops (and other fruits) in Tuscany and more recently in Provence. Clearly it has spread to the Languedoc.

Three or four generations of adults appear in any year with the biggest populations coming at the end of August and into September. They feed on ripe fruit juice and honeydew from aphids, things you would find in vineyards at harvest time. The eggs are laid in the bunch and the larvae eat not just grape juice but also attack the stems. The grapes empty completely and the spoilage damages other bunches with botrytis and rot. They are much more damaging to the grapes than the usual ver de la grappe, as Jeff sadly found with his Mourvedre.

Chemical treatments are available for spraying but Jeff and organic producers generally cannot use them. There are naturally occurring bacterial treatments such as Spinosad (made from crushed sugar cane) which organic producers are permitted to use. Otherwise vignerons can try to use pheromones which confuse the male moths so that they don’t breed, confusion sexuelle. Insect traps are another option. Italian scientists are also experimenting with the use of trichogramma. These are wasps which lay their eggs inside the moth eggs meaning that the moths do not develop. These have been used successfully in other fruit production and vineyard trials seem to be promising. Whether upsetting the balance of natural order is a good thing is open to debate.

Therefore, though the 2020 harvest will generally be a good one, there was a final problem. Mourvedre is used by Jeff, occasionally for a single variety cuvée but more often to blend in various cuvées such as Le Vin des Amis and Sauvé de la Citerne. Now that this new menace is identified Jeff will look out for it next year, a hard frost in winter would help to kill off the hibernating adults. Let us hope that this is a problem which we can look back upon as a curiosity, that may be looking at it with glass half full.

More about the problem here (article in French)


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Vendanges 2020 – Part 2

En francais

All photos by Flora Rey, you can find more of her work on Facebook

I had a chat with Jeff on Saturday to check on progress and plans for this week. Heavy rain (30mm) that day meant that harvesting would be a little more difficult on Monday as the cars and vans would not be able to get into the vineyards. However, that has been the only significant blip in this year’s vendanges (perhaps me not being there has brought good luck!). There has been little disease despite an outbreak of mildew back in June but Jeff was able to get on top of that before it became significant. Happily, he repeated that the grapes are in excellent condition.

Icare awaits his master

The other good news is that quantity is also good, which should mean more wine available for everyone. Remember that many of the 2019 cuvées are not yet released due to slow fermentations delaying the whole process of winemaking. Therefore, I would think it is likely that many of the 2020s will be held back too. Overall, though there will be plenty of Coutelou wines in the next couple of years. The rain of Saturday will also boost quantities a little more in grapes such as Grenache and Carignan which were the later ones to be picked. The Grenache is rich so the rain will help to make it more balanced as well as providing higher yields, it was a well-timed break in the weather.

Boris in early morning Peilhan

The only other issue, and one I had heard was an issue in other areas of the Languedoc, was vers de la grappe, the moth larvae which is hatched in the grapes and can spoil bunches as grape juice flows onto the bunch. Fortunately, the problem is not on a large scale though Jeff wanted to get a move on in finishing the harvest as the moths are now adult and will lay eggs if the grapes are still on the vine.

As most grapes are now picked, the hard work shifts to the cellar and the making of the wine, pressing, remontage, pigeage. Decisions about which grapes go into which tank, which might be mixed together and in what type of container, the cement or stainless steel tanks, amphora or barrel. The 3D puzzle in Jeff’s head, and spreadsheet, gets complicated.

Flower Power, the complantation of Font D’Oulette vineyard, continues to provide meagre returns, 8 cases this year after similar yields in the last two vintages. These young vines will take some years to properly mature and produce more fruit. The grapes were mixed with Syrah from Segrairals which was picked early. That combination was pressed on Saturday and will make a good, juicy, light wine.

The Cinsault of Rome was good but the whites (Muscats, Grenaches Blanc and Gris) of the higher part of the vineyard yielded little though that was partly due to some locals having helped themselves to some bunches probably as eating grapes. The few cases brought back were mixed with Macabeu and Grenache Gris from Peilhan and put into one of the amphorae.

The other amphora will be used for the various blanc and gris grapes (Carignan, Grenache etc) also from Peilhan.

Meanwhile the grapes picked have started to ferment well. Jeff is especially pleased with the Syrahs and the good news, for me at least, is that La Vigne Haute could well be made from La Garrigue. So, lots of positive news from Puimisson, the team is clearly working well and we can enjoy these excellent photographs to glimpse what is happening there.

I love this photo showing the team sorting the grapes together, a true image of vendanges teamwork


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Vendanges 2020

En francais

Jeff with an early case

I may not be there in person but I certainly am in Puimisson in spirit. Jeff has kept me up to date however and his niece Flora has taken some lovely photos and allowed me to share them. So what has been happening with the Coutelou harvest.

Before they began Jeff reported to me that the grapes were ‘magnifiques’, high praise indeed from a viticulteur, a group who are infamously pessimistic. The promise of 2020 producing something exceptional would be very in keeping, a year when nothing ordinary happens. The grapes ripened early however, problematically, at much the same rate across varieties. This means that there has been a need to get the grapes in as quickly as possible.

Normally, certain varieties ripen earlier than others and so it is easy to organise picking and plan it across the weeks of harvest. When they ripen simultaneously there is pressure to get them in before they become too mature and over ripe.

Fortunately, all has gone well so far. The white grapes were picked first, as usual, and came in with good acidity and around 13,5% alcohol. There was talk of bubbles being made, not an annual event.

Segrairals and Sainte Suzanne followed with Grenache and Syrah to the fore, the two grapes which provide the foundation of many of the Coutelou cuvées, Ste. Suzanne for example being the traditional home of Le Vin des Amis. A successful harvest with those two grapes means a successful harvest overall and relief for Jeff.

La Garrigue was picked on Wednesday 26th and Flora took some great photos of the picking of its Syrah, home of La Vigne Haute in good years. Regular readers know that this is my favourite wine of all so fingers crossed that this Syrah is up to standard, if not perfect it is used for other cuvées. Rome was harvested on Thursday and that gave me a pang of regret and disappointment, I miss my favourite vineyard.

With a new team working in the vines and in the cellar Jeff along with the regular team of Moroccan pickers things have moved along quickly. The new machine to help to sort the grapes has worked very well and saved time as well as being very accurate and efficient. Flora’s photos suggest at least some whole berry fermentations, the carbonic maceration technique which often makes fresh, fruity wine.

So far so good. Fingers crossed for what remains, some of the later varieties such as Carignan and Mourvedre. Something good may come out of this wretched year after all.

Top photo and videos from Jeff and the team.

All other photos by Flora Rey


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Back To The Future

Version francaise

I promised two updates from Puimisson with news with Jeff Coutelou but, first of all, a follow up from last time. Jeff tells me that fine weather has held back any outbreak of mildew though more rain is forecast this weekend. He cannot touch the soils and the grass and flowers which have grown around the vines as that would certainly trigger the mildew spores which live in the soil. This growth will compete with the vines for nutrients and, if Jeff has to leave it in place all year, for fear of triggering disease, then it will lower the yields.

All is not bleak however. Jeff was enjoying the sunshine last week and the vines’ lush growth. He has also assembled an interesting team to help work in the vines, local people who can work safely without travelling. There is an ex seminarian, a teacher, a young man wanting to learn about winemaking, a scientist and others. Sadly, not me.

Fermentations finishing, 2020

Last years’ wines stalled towards the end of their fermentations at the end of 2019 but the warmer temperatures of Spring rectified that, reawakening the fermentations and the wines are now completed and settled. The various wines have been assembled into the blends which Jeff wanted for the 2019 cuvées. They will rest, be bottled in the next few months but not for sale until much later in the year.

Part of the blending record, giving nothing away!

Most exciting though, there has been a lot of looking to the future. A new plantation of mainly Aramon and Mourvedre with smaller amounts of Aramon Blanc and Servant, an old Languedoc variety which is very little planted. Yet another addition to the Coutelou catalogue, reversing the long term decline in plantings of the grape (down to just 75 hectares in 2011.)

Other work has been done to put up the stakes and wires for plantations from the last couple of years, for example in the parcel next to Sainte Suzanne which had been fallow for years and in Segrairals, shown in the photo below.

And Jeff has been looking still further into the future. When he retires Jeff intends to move to St. Chinian where part of the Coutelou family had their traditional home. The 4 hectares of vines which were there have been grubbed up and replanted with the varieties of the area (and no doubt some typical Jeff extras) as well as trees such as oak and olive, shrubs and plants too. This was a major task and timed for Jeff’s birthday too as plants and vines are what excite him.

So, the virus has undoubtedly altered the way that Jeff has had to do things but, happily, it hasn’t brought the domaine to a halt. The vines are growing well, there will be a 2020 vintage. And there is plenty to look forward to once we are past this.


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Looking to the future

No particular theme to this week’s article, more a blending of various thoughts and ideas. I will be updating from Puimisson in the next article as Jeff Coutelou keeps me up to date with all that is happening there, which makes me happy but also sad not to be there.

Yesterday was one of those occasions when I had an article pretty much ready to run and then I clicked on a website and found someone had pretty much beaten me to it. This time it was an interesting article by Hannah Fuellenkemper on The Morning Claret website, which is one I follow and heartily recommend. It follows up the issue of natural wine certification by looking at not just what winemakers need to be doing for that (and whether it is worthwhile) but what they should be doing extra. I was thinking along similar lines, as we go through this pandemic crisis surely we should take the time to reflect on how we live and what we can do to make the world better in future. The world of wine included.

Getting every tiny part of every piece of equipment clean uses a lot of water

Fuellenkemper tackles issues such as the use of water, certainly an issue in the Languedoc that I have highlighted before. Jeff recirculates water and has his own well but that is not common. Water usage is high in winemaking, especially natural wines where equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned to eliminate any risk of contamination. She then criticises the use of cleaning chemicals which I understand but, believe me, pips and bits of grape skin get into the tiniest spaces and need to be cleansed. Sometimes a small amount of chemical might be needed to sterilise machinery, though it is then washed intensively with water to get rid of residues.

Heavy bottles, use of plastic are issues I have covered before, why some wines have glass weighing almost 1kg is beyond me. Sparkling wines do need thicker glass because of the pressure within but I have had far too many still wines in heavy bottles for no good reason other than to give an air of quality, not always matched by their contents.

Vines stretching everywhere, Oic Vissou in the background

One further issue raised is that of monoculture. Living in the Languedoc it still amazes me that there is such an expanse of vines, they cover a huge surface area, 223,000 hectares. Jeff is unusual in having planted many hectares of trees, shrubs and flowers to provide diversity and a shelter for beneficial wildlife such as bats. It has made him the target of vandalism in the past when in fact it is the way that vineyards need to be.

One bottle I drank recently also made me think of diversity. La Vigne d’Albert from Tour des Gendres in the Bergerac region has Merlot and the two Cabernets like so many wines from there but it also has Périgord (aka Mérille) and Abouriou, a little Cot (or Malbec) and Fer Servadou.

This no sulphites added wine was big and bold, a glass on the third day after opening still had tannin and an earthy, red fruit profile. However, it was the use of the obscure grape varieties which made it a noteworthy wine for me. Mérille / Périgord is only planted on about 100 hectares in the world, mainly in the Bergerac and Fronton areas. Abouriou has more planting (470ha in 2006), is another south western native grape and possibly has more impact on the wine than Mérille with greater tannins and colour as well as some of those red fruit aromas I detected.

As readers will know one of my favourite things about Jeff’s vineyards is the huge number of grape varieties, thirty or more. As well as complexity and variety I think that different types of vine has to be good for the vineyard, diversity and the fauna of the countryside. Moreover I believe there is a need to seek alternatives from the main grape varieties which dominate the world of wine but which may not suit vineyard regions in future because of the effects of climate change.

This table shows how the Languedoc has actually increased plantings of those dominant varieties this century at the expense of more indigenous, regional grapes, commercial demand winning over common sense and the future of a healthy vineyard region. So, I applaud Tour des Gendres, Jeff and all those seeking to put the earth and diversity first not the supermarkets.

Finally at a time of lockdown I have been pondering on travel and carbon footprints. Travel is one of the greatest pleasures and privileges of life, I have been fortunate to meet winegrowers in Australia, New Zealand and across Europe with other journeys not featuring wine (I know!). I read wine writers who are constantly on the move flying to countries for assignments, commissions and competition judging. Is that sustainable? Is it compatible with demands on winemakers to be more environmentally aware? Whenever and however we emerge from this crisis I do think we should all consider just how much travel is sustainable.

In the meantime I wish you all good health, stay safe.


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Coutelou 2019

A Coutelou update.

Every year Jeff sends out a New Year friendship card to regular clients and friends. The 2020 version highlights the ongoing protests in France about pensions, I particularly appreciated the mobility scooter with bottles in its basket. Inside is a résumé of 2019 and what happened in the vineyards and vendanges. Here’s a quick summary.

The winter of 18-19 saw a healthy rainfall of 400mm in October and November which went a long way to replenish the water levels. Budding began at the start of April, a normal date. Spring was colder and drier than usual and that slowed down growth and the date of véraison, when the grapes change colour. However, there was little or no disease other than a little coulure, where bunches have gaps. The major problem of 2019 came in June with an exceptional period of heat and the start of a very dry summer. This meant that as harvest began the grapes were struggling to reach phenolic ripeness when tannins are ripe and supple. Harvest lasted just over two weeks after starting a little later than normal at the start of September. The grapes were exceptionally healthy and clean, and very concentrated. “The winemaker is more than satisfied with the results achieved.”

The lack of rain (100mm from January to August) and the exceptional heatwave of June serve as a warning to what faces us with climate change.

After harvest things seemed to be going very well thank you. Plenty of nitrogen, good yeasts and healthy grapes, meant fermentation started well. But, there’s always a but, the wines have struggled to finish those fermentations. This has been the story across the region from other winemakers. Theories abound, the most likely is that the heat and dryness encouraged an excess of potash in the grape must, raising pH levels and so stopping fermentation. Soutirages, moving wine from the bottom of the tank to the top, helps to keep the tank clean and healthy and winter will help tartar to develop which will boost the fermentation when temperatures start to rise again.

The above means that it has been difficult to plan blending as even Jeff cannot be certain of how each tank will taste. However, there will be a wine of white and gris (Grenache for example) in amphora, an orange wine of Muscat d’Alexandrie, a Spring red and a Carignan, Castets and Morastel red wine. Plus the classic Coutelou cuvées with Syrah and Grenache to the fore.

These days the domaine is known as Vins et Spiritueux Coutelou so a word on the spirits. Gin, eau de vie, Kina will be joined by new bottles of an aromatic spirit and a mint based drink.

New planting of Clairette (right) and Macabeu

And in the vines? 200 metres of new hedgerows to replace those destroyed by malicious fires a couple of years ago, new olive trees planted too. A new parcel of Cinsault and a white parcel near Sainte Suzanne of Macabeu and Clairette were planted. So no retiring just yet!


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Grapes galore and Galet

Happy New Year to readers, we shall see what 2020 brings. Hopefully more excellent wines like those I described in my last posts on wines of the year.

The last year ended with one piece of sad news with the death of Pierre Galet on December 31st. Galet was the authority on grapes and ampelography. He pioneered means of identifying grape varieties, encouraged the collection and conservation of vines and wrote extensively on them. His Dictionnaire encyclopédique des cépages is authoritative and an endless source of information and fascination for me. Galet’s work will go on through his studies and students, a man who enhanced the world.

Appropriately I took delivery of a new Coutelou wine produced in 2018. It is made up of the many varieties which are planted in the Flower Power vineyard, Font D’Oulette. These include Clairette Musquée (originally the Hungarian Org Tokosi), Delizia Di Vaprio, Aramon Gris amongst the twenty plus varieties, red and white, planted in the parcel. The 2018 vintage was much reduced by the mildew outbreak across the region and this vineyard produced very small quantities, eight cases in total from a parcel of more than half a hectare in area. Consequently Jeff added two more varieties to the mix, Carignan and Castets from Peilhan vineyard to bulk out the quantities. Castets is another rare variety, only recently added to the list of permitted grapes in Bordeaux having almost completely vanished from wine production only ten years ago.

The resulting wine is bottled as Couleurs Réunies and has a most attractive label reflecting that name. The wine itself is youthful, a rich purple in colour with huge black fruit flavours and fresh acidity. It is lovely now but will keep for a few years. A triumph from a very difficult vintage, which is producing excellent wines despite the problems.

Grenache on the left

And, so, to my last recommended wine from 2019. I promised that I would include one Coutelou wine and though I enjoyed many, many great bottles I finally chose, ironically, a single variety wine. That wine is Mise De Printemps Grenache. Made for early drinking I enjoyed this wine through the year, its red label meaning it was the wine I drank to celebrate Liverpool’s Champions League triumph for example. Lovely red fruits, soft and with a lovely cherry finish. A true vin de plaisir.


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Oddities #4

En francais

Puimisson is on the plain north of Béziers. The foothills of the Montagne Noire lie a few kilometres further north towards St. Chinian so it was a surprise to me when we came across this bunch during the vendanges. Why?

As you may know if you read my harvest reports this year was problematic because of the summer heat but also a spell of bad weather during flowering and fruit set in Spring. This led to problems of coulure and millerandage. This means that the new berries either don’t develop at all or very little, bunches look very uneven.

In the photos above you see evidence of this. A bunch with gaps where grapes should be, some grapes which have not changed colour and matured.

The photo above shows the aftermath of a sorting table after destemming. You will see lots of green unformed berries, coulure.

Moths were also busy ravaging some of the grapes, laying their eggs in the bunch gaps, the larvae then eating into the grapes. The photos below show one of the moths and then you can see a grape in the centre of the bunch with a hole where the worm has buried through, the juice then spoiling the bunch as it falls over it. Incidentally the bunch with the moth shows damage to the bunch caused by the late June heatwave.

However, the headline bunch was something different. I had to ask. Was it birds which had eaten the grapes? Well, I was on the right track but actually it was the work of a wild boar. These animals cause real damage in some parts of the Languedoc eating large quantities of grapes, some vignerons use electric fencing to keep them out. But that is mainly in the hills and wooded areas. Here on the plain they are much rarer but they are still around, perhaps the dry weather brought some further down to seek food.


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Oddities

En francais

In the next couple of posts I am going to look at some photos taken during vendanges which highlight some oddities and insights into vines and wines which I have not covered in the story of the harvest.

This photo may look like a bunch of red grapes has been placed in amongst bunches of white grapes. The oddity is in fact that they came from the same vines. The grapes are mainly Grenache Blanc, the others are Grenache Gris. Grape varieties are basically variations of one another.

The Grenache family (Noir, Gris and Blanc) are all the same DNA, with the slightest mutation between them. This is also true of the Pinot family for example. In this case one or two of the Grenache Blanc vines has somehow produced one of the mutations in some of the bunches, the result is that a Grenache Blanc vine produced Grenache Gris grapes.

Grape breeding is a very inexact science. The crossing of grape varieties produces new varieties, eg Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc produced Cabernet Sauvignon. However, if I was to try to cross Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc it is unlikely that I would produce Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the original cross is a unique event.

The vines we see across vineyards worldwide are often cuttings propagated from successful vines which show characteristics favoured by the producer, such as quality or quantity of grapes. These clones are planted but, again, slight variety amongst the billions of cells in the vine means that they could well be different to the original vine, not identical clones at all.

Therefore, this case of grapes was fascinating to me. It is not that unusual for this to happen, but it certainly piques my interest as I learn more about grape varieties and grape growing.


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Harvest 2019 – The End

En francais

Julien loads the last case of 2019

Life is full of surprises.

I went along to the cellars on Monday 23rd September in order to take some photographs of the pressing and progress with the making of the wines. When I arrived Jeff and Julien were on their own pressing the marc from the Cinsault. The free juice had been run off already into tank but the grape skins and pulp contain a lot of juice still so they are pressed adding more tannins and colour to the finished wine.

However, shifting tons of grape skins from a tank through a small doorway and then pumping it into the press is hard work and though they were managing well enough I decided to help out and get stuck in. It’s a proper workout pitchforking all that pulp, it gets very messy (bad news for my trainers) but job done. More remontages in the afternoon but also the chance to taste through the tanks before sending samples off for analysis.

Tasting wines from tank during or immediately after fermentation is challenging. Jeff is used to it and knows how a wine will emerge. I taste a lot of wines and know his very well by now but all I seek to achieve is an idea of acidity, tannin and fruit presence, to see if these elements are balanced. Happily it is good news all round. The wines tasted good, very promising for the vintage following on from last year’s excellent quality. The analyses are also good, there have been one or two scares along the way but the wines have worked themselves out with a little help from Jeff.

A week later I was a little surprised to hear that there was to be one last pick. This has happened in previous years, often picking Muscat for the solera. However, there were a few rows of Grenache Gris unpicked and so on September 30th, a month after harvest began we started over.

I picked all morning with the Moroccan team of four, my aching back a reminder of how quickly we get out of practice and rhythm. Then back to the cellar where the grapes, with a few vines of Macabeu, were pressed.

Grenache Gris is one of my favourite grapes, its pinkish colour marks it out and many of my favourite white wines from the Languedoc, and especially Roussillon, are made with the grape. The bunches were healthy, the wine should be very good.

In the afternoon we used the marc from the Grenache Gris. It was passed back through the destemmer and the grapes placed into a container with a little bit of water. This will make a piquette wine, a light quaffing wine. I was surprised to read a couple of days later that piquette wines are the new trend in the USA. It is something of a tradition in Puimisson. On Wednesday the piquette was already fermenting when we looked in the container.

There still remains much to do in the cellar but this was definitely the end, the final cases are in. I think.